Two civil rights watchdogs today filed a lawsuit against the US Department of Homeland Security after a number of travellers complained that their laptops, mobile phones and other electronic devices had been excessively screened at border entry points.
Internet watchdog Electronic Frontier Foundation and civil liberty group Asian Law Caucus (ALC) brought the suit under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).
The lawsuit (pdf), which was filed in the US District Court in San Francisco, calls for the Customs and Border Protection (CBP) unit of the DHS to cough up records that detail the "questioning, search and inspection" methods used on travellers who enter or return to the US through a number of ports.
The two lobby groups said they were prompted to act following more than 20 complaints by Californian citizens and residents, who told the ALC that they had been unduly harassed by CBP agents.
According to the EFF, US citizen Amir Khan – an IT consultant working in Fremont, California – has been stopped every time he returns to the country from travels abroad.
He claimed that custom officials searched his laptop, books, personal notebooks and mobile phone. Khan also said that he has been held for questioning for more than 20 hours.
Other individuals made similar complaints as well as saying that the agency had grilled them about their religious practices, families, political beliefs and other activities on their return to the US from travels abroad.
The lawsuit follows the DHS's failure to meet the 20-day time limit that Congress had set for responding to public information requests, said the EFF.
The group's staff attorney Marcia Hofmann said in a statement: "The public has the right to know what the government's standards are for border searches. Laptops, phones, and other gadgets include vast amounts of personal information.
"When will agents read your email? When do they copy data, where is it stored, and for how long? How will this information follow you throughout your life? The secrecy surrounding border search policies means that DHS has no accountability to America's travellers."
The CBP, which was not available for comment at time of writing, opened a new FOIA office in October last year under the Office of International Trade with the aim of improving agency disclosure of information. ®